At just 9 years old, Robert Charles Reed has assembled a remarkably impressive resume. When he was 6, his talent performance for the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s annual Monsieur Ebonaire pageant was reciting from memory long excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. His sincerity brought the audience to its feet and captured their hearts, helping to raise more than $8,000. He has earned a temporary black belt in taekwondo and is a member of his academy’s traveling demonstration team. Last year, he opened Quik Shine Shoe Service, a mobile shoe-shine stand. Recently, he was honored as one of five 2013 South Carolina Young Entrepreneurs.
Even better, Robert Charles is also a blissfully normal child. He plays football, jokes around with his parents, plays video games and loves Starbucks mocha frappes. On any given day, wearing a Batman blanket as a cape as he zooms around his family’s immaculate great room, he could easily be just another fourth grade student in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Magnet Program at North Springs Elementary School.
Quik Shine Shoe Service got its start in February 2012 in Robert’s father Marvin’s garage. Marvin was working on a project when Robert handed him a slip of paper and asked him to build “a shoe box.”
“I didn’t look at the paper, I just built a box,” recalls Marvin. “When I handed it to him, he looked disappointed, said it wasn’t what he wanted and asked if I had looked at the paper.” Marvin hadn’t looked at the paper, but when he did, he was surprised to see that it contained a rough drawing of a shoeshine stand. “When I asked him about it, he told me that he wanted to start a business so that I wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
Robert says he was ready to continue the family tradition of self-employment. “My dad has his own business, my grandfather had a shoe shine stand, and I wanted to start a business, too,” he explains. “I just needed my dad to help me build the stand. I named it Quik Shine because my other grandfather had a restaurant called Quik Charlie’s.”
After adding more detail to the drawing, father and son headed out, bought the materials and got to work measuring, sawing, gluing and nailing. Robert was very specific about what he wanted, often tweaking the design as he went. “It had to have a soft seat and a place for their arms,” he explains. Perhaps the toughest part of the job was making sure the footrest sat at a height and angle that would allow both Robert and the customer to be comfortable. The process, which took several tries, has become a long-running joke between father and son.
“We traced my dad’s feet to make sure it was big enough,” says Robert.
“Are you saying I have big feet?” replies Marvin with a laugh, holding his left foot in the air.
Within days, the stand was complete. Robert was thrilled.
“Robert has an uncanny ability to picture something in his head, draw it and figure out how to put it together,” explains his mother Joan Roberts-Reed, CATE Program Specialist for Richland School District One. “It was exactly what he’d wanted.”
Now it was time to learn to shine shoes. For Robert, it was easy. “You put on the polish in circles with this little round brush, flatten it out and smooth it with a rag and then put the sole dressing on the bottom,” he explains. “It only takes a few minutes. My dad thought I needed help the first time, but I didn’t. It’s hard work, but I never get tired because I’m so excited to be working!”
With his mother as his business manager and his dad by his side, Robert’s first foray into the business world took place at the Southeast Regional Black Male Summit. Not only did Robert earn $71 in tips in the three and a half hours he worked, but he also made a number of valuable contacts, including Mayor Steve Benjamin, who invited him to work at his All Sports Reception. “Isn’t he awesome?” enthuses Mayor Benjamin when asked about Robert. “He’s personable, professional and works hard with pride. He impressed the heck out of a lot of people.”
By the end of 2012, Robert had worked at six different events, earning $337 for a little more than 13 hours work. Of that, he donated $80 to the American Cancer Society and the Immune Deficiency Foundation. Robert has run his business so professionally that he was asked to speak to a group of teen entrepreneurs at Keenan High School.
Talk to the adults in Robert’s life, and it’s clear that no one is really shocked that, at 9, he’s achieved more than many grown-ups. “When I first met him, he was 5 or 6 and already able to absorb and utilize information at a very high level,” says Dr. Robert Kirton, an education consultant and chief executive officer of Richland One Middle College at Midlands Technical College, a charter school. “He’ll make a terrific mentor to younger students when he’s older.”
Dr. Walter Tobin, chair of South Carolina State University’s board of trustees, also has been impressed by Robert. “He talks about his future, when he’ll buy his first home and how he’s already saving money. You just don’t hear a 9-year-old talking that way. But he’s also not missing out on his childhood, which is equally important. You play with the toys that surround you, and from birth Robert has been surrounded by accomplishment and vision. There’s no telling how far he’ll go.”
Margaret Roberts, his grandmother, is his biggest fan. “He just amazes me with what he says. My husband died of cancer, and he decided to do those donations all on his own. My heart just swelled.”
And what’s next for Robert Reed? College for sure, although he can’t decide if he wants to be a robotics engineer or a Navy SEAL. Since both involve treading into uncharted territory, he’ll probably be quite comfortable — and successful. “Even if things don’t work out the first time, when I keep trying, they do,” he says. “It might be harder than you think, but if you like it, it won’t be boring. That’s why I do things I like.”